By Lori McDonald
For The Republic
A two-day festival celebrating the heritage of Jackson County’s oldest community is fast approaching.
The 48th annual Fort Vallonia Days will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday and fill Main Street in the small southern Jackson County community with people.
Vallonia was a French settlement established in the late 1790s.
Always conducted on the third weekend in October, Fort Vallonia Days is something that many look forward to attending each year.
As always, the festival will feature a wide array of activities for attendees, including the parade, craft booths, a variety of food, flea markets, music and entertainment for all ages and more.
Fort Vallonia Days is one of the most prominent fall festivals in southern Indiana, drawing crowds estimated up to 30,000 in past years. Plus, the Fort Vallonia Museum will be open during the festival and is a must-see, full of historical items and memorabilia, organizers said.
Vallonia resident Jackie Gibson is serving as president of the event for the second year in a row. She also was president in the past.
“I’ve served on different committees through the years,” she said. “Being president is not a hard job because we have so many dedicated committee members who make sure things get done.”
During the two-day celebration, Gibson’s husband, Lonny, attends the event with their two children, Maddie, 11, and Paul, 9.
“Maybe one day when the kids are older, Lonny will be helping out with Fort Vallonia Days, too,” Gibson said.
Gibson has been involved with Fort Vallonia Days for as long as she can remember because her parents, Gene and Mary Beth Johnson, both of Vallonia, were on the founding committee for the annual event.
Fort Vallonia Days was founded in 1968 and got off the ground during a Lions Club meeting when the discussion came up about the possibility of building a replica of the old fort.
“Ronald Shoemaker came up with the idea,” Gene Johnson said. “Members of the local Lions Club became interested. Then all the people got together and got it done.”
Shoemaker was not a member of the Lions Club, but he was elected as the 1970 Vallonia school alumni president, and he served as chairman for the first Fort Vallonia Days celebration in 1969.
The event drew about 3,000 people the first year, and it was a grand celebration, according to news reports at the time.
The nearly hourlong parade was led by cartoon show host Janie Woods of the “Popeye and Janie Show.” The show was a popular children’s program that ran from 1963 through 1986 on WTTV, Channel 4.
“Some things they don’t do anymore, like when the fire department would build a jailhouse out of logs,” Johnson said. “People ran it for two weeks before the celebration, and if a guy hadn’t grown a beard yet, he had to stay in the jail for 10 or 20 minutes and pay a little fine, all in fun.”
The purpose of the festival is to raise funds to help with the preservation of the fort, grounds and museum and to purchase more property to support the annual celebration.
Besides all of the activities the festival has to offer, many attendees look forward to the food, too.
One of the favorites is Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department’s fish sandwiches. Another place where there likely is to be a long line is Vallonia Christian Church’s stand, where they serve up homemade soups, desserts and other goodies.
Something new at the festival this year will be the bicentennial bison, which will be on display by the fort as part of the county and state’s bicentennial celebrations.
Along with being president of the event, Gibson also is owner of Johnson Funeral Home in Vallonia. She is the fourth generation in her family to run the business.
The funeral home originated with her great-grandfather, Elmer Johnson, in 1912. The business then was passed down to her grandfather, Oris G. Johnson Sr., and then her father, Gene.
“The funeral home has been here for a little over 100 years,” Gibson said. “It is part of Vallonia’s history, too.”
Gibson and her parents agree Fort Vallonia Days is more than a celebration of history, but it’s also a homecoming.
“A lot of people come from out of town,” Gibson said. “Some of our family from St. Louis come back. This celebration brings the community together and brings families home. It’s just a really special time.”
For information, visit fortvalloniadays.com.